Show-Off: An Interview with Stephin Merritt

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By Matt Gonzales

In an article he wrote for The Believer magazine a few years ago, author Rick Moody narrowed down the Magnetic Fields’ magnificent 69 Love Songs to 31 songs. The idea was to whittle away its weakest tracks, transforming a great album into a perfect album—or perfect, at least, in the eyes of Moody. As Moody noted, it’s the same geeky game Beatles fans have played with the White Album for years.

As he made his selections, Moody recognized a pattern: He was avoiding all of the songs with show tune qualities.

“The problem is that I hate show tunes,” Moody wrote. “Not to mention musical theater. I don’t find the American musical charming and funny and full of musical brilliance. I find it embarrassing, overstated … Bernadette Peters sends me screaming from a room. Liza Minelli is appalling, and so was her mom. In fact, I dislike opera too.”

According to my research, most straight males share Moody’s sentiments. This research was limited to my immediate social circle and myself, but I think it’s safe to extrapolate the results to the general straight-male public.

Now if you’re like Moody, my close friends, and myself, you have a deep affection for the often heart-rending and nearly always astonishingly clever pop songs that songwriter Stephin Merritt has written for the Magnetic Fields as well as the Sixths, the Gothic Archies and Future Bible Heroes (for whom he is a lyricist). On the other hand, you loathe show tunes. So what do you do when Merritt puts out a solo album made up exclusively of show tunes?

This was one of the first questions I asked Merritt as I explained to him that I personally just don’t like musical theater.

After a very long pause, Merritt answered very slowly, the timbre of his voice so low that I had to ask him to repeat himself several times throughout our conversation.

“I have a really, really eclectic record collection, and most of the people that I know do as well,” he said. “And when people don’t, I sort of have to ask them why they don’t. Why are you not familiar with show tunes? Is there a particular thing about them that you can’t stand?”

Despite his reputation as an abrasive interview subject, Merritt posed the question politely, without condescension.

“Well, you know,” I stammered, “I think, having grown up in the Midwest, far—”

“Far from the theater?” Merritt interjected.

“Yes,” I said. “Far from the theater. I grew up on FM radio and MTV. As a kid, musicals seemed boring to me. And I think it’s common, especially among men—straight men, maybe,” I was still stammering. “Maybe that has something to do with it?”

“Have you heard the Broadway album of Hair?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Do you think it’s [unintelligible]?”

“Do I think it’s funny?”

“Do you think it’s boring? Of course it’s funny.”

“No I don’t think it’s boring. It’s just so melodramatic—I really can’t explain it to you. But when you come out with a new album, I want to listen to it, show tunes or not, because I’m such an admirer of you as a writer.”

“But this is a particularly difficult area to follow me into?”

“I think that it’s challenging for me.”

And with that, the part of the interview during which Stephin Merritt interviewed me ended. As the conversation shifted, Merritt explained how Showtunes, though only 26 tracks long, was just as large-scale of an endeavor as 69 Love Song.

“It is a compilation of three cast albums, and it took, actually, a lot more work than 69 Love Songs. I didn’t work on it night and day, but I worked on it a whole lot in three and a half years, and it cost five times as much and involved a lot of travel and a huge amount of work. So although in length it’s not as long as 69 Love Songs, for me, it’s just as epic a project.”

The three plays from which the songs on Showtunes were culled were collaborations of Merritt and director Chen Shi Zheng. The Orphan of Zhao and Peach Blossom Fan are based on traditional Chinese operas, while My Life as a Fairy Tale is based on the writings of Hans Christian Andersen.

The songs on Showtunes are exactly the kind of overstated melodramatic narratives that Rick Moody, my straight male friends, and I can’t stand. The instrumentation, which includes auto harp, pipa, jinghu, and yanquin, is appropriately Chinese-influenced. The vocals are handled by original cast members. Merritt doesn’t sing or play any instruments on the album. I suggested to Merritt that this wasn’t a formula for commercial success.

“Presumably not, yes,” he replied. “Nevertheless, I think it’s an important career move. I want to make 100 Hollywood musicals, and I think this is a good way of getting into that.”

For the past several years, Merritt has been periodically collaborating on a sung-through screenplay with Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler. The pair has finished two-thirds of it so far. When I noted that finishing 100 screenplays will require him to pick up the pace, Merritt responded dryly, “Yes, that’s true.”

Merritt can afford to take his time writing his screenplay and working on labors of love like Showtunes thanks to financial gains afforded him by previous work. “People use my songs in movies; that pays well,” he said. “It certainly would be great if I made a lot more money so I could have a much larger apartment so I could have a vibraphone and place to record, drum set, more large keyboards, and a concert-scale marimba,” he said. “I have a very vertically organized apartment. There isn’t enough room in my studio to set up a Farfiza at the moment.”

Merritt won’t sell his songs to just anyone. A few years ago, the Magnetic Fields refused licensing to a documentary “that seemed particularly political in ways that we didn’t agree with,” he said.

And while he isn’t known as political, at least outside the realm of gay rights, Merritt calls Showtunes his most political work to date.

“When we did Peach Blossom Fan, they were in the middle of invading Iraq,” he said. “That definitely came out in the play and in the lyrics. The songs and lyrics in the beginning of the album are “At Madame Plum’s” and “Hail Son of Heaven”, which are quite political. And I have two anti-war songs on Showtunes, and no one has registered that.”

Also likely to go under some listeners’ radars are the influences in Merritt’s music. Asked what he’s been listening to lately, and the slow pace of his speech accelerates ever so slightly.

“The relatively new remaster of the Blondie album Auto-American, which I love,” he said. “I keep listening to ‘The Tide is High’ for the wonderful, wonderful percussion. It’s definite that I am going to emulate it. I listen to it and say ‘Wow, that sounds fantastic! I love this song. I am so going to steal this.’

Merritt is particularly fond of producer Mike Chapman, who in addition to producing Blondie, also worked with Sweet and Joan Jett. “He’s known for big multiple snare sounds and handclaps and Gary Glitter drums, which I love,” Merritt said.

Merritt’s love of radio pop is leavened by the sensibilities of a classically trained musician with an ardent love of Irving Berlin. He didn’t attend music school, but as a youth he was tutored in arrangements, composition, and guitar by a Berkeley professor. The tutelage should prove helpful as he embarks on his mission to complete 100 Hollywood screenplays—none of which, Merritt said, he plans to direct.

“I went to film school and I have to say I’m the worst film director in the world. My movies were kind of like Andy Warhol movies, in that I would point the camera at somebody for the length of the reel and let them do their shtick. I didn’t actually seek out particularly camera-worthy people and I didn’t actually give them anything interesting to do.”

As long as Merritt is involved and show tunes aren’t, Rick Moody, my straight male friends, and I would probably love it.

Matt Gonzales is a freelance writer living in Indianapolis, Ind.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/merritt-stephin-060523/